Ever since I trained as a volunteer panda interpreter-presenter at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, I've thought how wonderful it would be to care for a baby panda myself. So I jumped at the chance upon learning that Jones Adventures offered an 11-day trip featuring the opportunity to help at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at the Wolong Nature Reserve. Sixteen panda cubs were born at the Center in the last year, and this tour promised I could get up close and personal with them.
After a few days of sightseeing in Beijing, the nine members of my group flew to Chengdu and boarded a bus headed to the mountains of western China's Sichuan province where pandas still live in the wild.
It is believed that only around 1,800 pandas exist worldwide. But the Chinese government deserves credit for working with the World Wildlife Fund and zoos in the United States to preserve the pandas.
Once settled in at our comfortable but basic accommodations in Wolong, our group of ardent, mostly single, panda-lovers set out to tour the immaculately maintained grounds and see the pandas. The adults were enjoying life, sleeping in the sun, munching bamboo, or dozing in trees. At the nursery we watched enthralled as the cubs rolled and wrestled, climbed on various platforms, hung upside down, pushed each other off a swing, and slid down a slide head first while others napped in a heap.
The next day I reported to my trainer. First, he took me to the food preparation building where we weighed a chunk of freshly baked, high protein "panda bread," put it in a bucket then added an apple, a carrot, and a huge bamboo stalk that looked like an elephant's tusk. Then off we went to feed the pandas and clean their enclosures.
In the indoor enclosure, the trainer crouched down to eye-level with the panda and gave a signal, in Chinese, for the panda to sit, extend a forearm and grab a bar outside the enclosure. When the panda followed this command, the caretaker gave him a piece of bread. I was surprised by how gently the pandas took bits of food and by the relationship they had with their trainers.
After feeding, the trainer secured the panda in the inner enclosure while I scooped panda poop, removed bamboo debris from the outer enclosure, then cleaned the fresh flowing water pool. When everything was neat and clean, I hauled in fresh, spray-sterilized bamboo.
The trainer approved my work then opened the door to the inner enclosure and called the panda outside so I could clean the inner enclosure. Our group averaged about four to five hours a day, each of us working for two pandas.
During off hours we were free to walk the grounds admiring the stunning mountainous setting or watch the antics of the cubs at the nursery. Evenings we lingered over excellent meals and talked about our panda experiences. One night, tour leader Keith Jones, the owner of Jones Adventures, gave a slide presentation of photos taken during many of his whale-encounter trips in Baja Mexico.
The highlight for me was adopting a cub for a year. There are various levels of adoption available to groups and individuals ranging in cost from about $500 up to $40,000 for those able to afford a lifetime adoption. As an adoptive "parent" I covered the costs of my panda's care for one year. In return I was allowed to choose my panda and give him a name for life.
I chose the name Hope or Xi Wang (say Chee-WHang) because people like myself hope for the continuation of this endangered species, and each baby panda represents hope for their future.
Once I had the name, I believed my panda and I would choose each other when I went to the panda kindergarten to play with the cubs. I played with this one and was offered that one, but one baby lounging with a friend high on a perch caught my attention. I went over to him, he raised and extended his head, and I asked if he'd like to come down and talk to me. Imagine my joy when he fearlessly slid down head first to a waist-high platform, stood on his hind legs and planted a paw on each of my shoulders. Nose to nose, eye to eye, I knew this was my Xi Wang. We played for a bit – I tickled his tummy; he gently chewed on my collar, climbed and wriggled all over me. Then playtime was over.
With adoption procedures finalized I had a chance for one last cuddle with Xi Wang during a photo session. Xi Wang made little chirping sounds and nibbled on my chin while I laughed, nearly cried, and thought life couldn't get better than this.
China Panda Encounter, including Beijing, Chengdu, and Xian. The cost for the May, 2006 trip was US$3,395 plus overseas airfare, and, due to May being off-season, there was NO SINGLE SUPPLEMENT. Other trip dates had a single supplement of US$250.
Details: Keith Jones Adventures with Wildlife.